Dial 211 for social services help

911. 411. 311. These are the quick and dirty numbers most of us turn to in times of need, whether it's for an emergency, a telephone number or, in Baltimore at least, a pothole.

Add to those 211, a fast and convenient way to access hundreds of social services with a single call, or so says the United Way of Central Maryland, which has joined with three other nonprofits to sponsor a $900,000, 10-month pilot set to start tomorrow. They are trying to prove to state legislators that the three-digit number should stay and that the public service should be state-funded.


United Way officials and others have been working to bring the 211 system to Maryland since 2000, when the federal government dedicated the three-digit telephone number to community life. Supporters trumpet the system as an efficient way to connect residents to aid, including emergency shelter, job training, Medicaid and Medicare, as well as adult day care and senior meals.

But in addition, they say it could provide a much needed backup to the existing 911 system, which in case of a disaster could become backlogged with non-emergency calls. When New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina last year, Louisiana's 211 system did just that, taking calls from thousands of homeless residents and connecting them to shelters, soup kitchens and medical aid.


'System is a lifeline'

"This system is a lifeline and a lifesaver," said Larry E. Walton, president of the United Way of Central Maryland. "It's an incredible asset."

One of Walton's employees volunteered at a 211 call center in Louisiana after the hurricane and witnessed firsthand the system's benefits. Besides that state, the system is in use in 38 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

"More than anything else, we gave people a live person to talk to," said Valerie Wethered, a United Way senior information and referral specialist who worked 12-hour shifts for 11 days at a call center in Monroe, La. "We had some people who were calling us who were still stranded on rooftops."

Back home, Wethered works at the United Way's "First Call For Help" center, which has served the Baltimore metro region for four decades. The center has also begun to take 211 calls on a limited basis. Workers at three other agencies - Community Crisis Services in Hyattsville, Life Crisis Center in Salisbury and Mental Health Association of Frederick County in Frederick - also have started to take such calls as part of a test of the system before it goes live.

90,000 callers a year

In Baltimore, Wethered and her colleagues help about 90,000 callers a year, helping them with questions that are simple ("Do I qualify for food stamps?") and complex ("Where can my sister in Florida go to get help evicting a drug-dependent relative?").

Yesterday, she took a call from a woman who was hysterical because she was about to be kicked out of a motel in Baltimore County. The caller, who said she was mentally and physically handicapped, told Wethered that she couldn't reach her caseworker.


Wethered calmed the woman and then called the caseworker's office, which was closed for the Columbus Day holiday. Undeterred, Wethered dialed the nonprofit agency's emergency number and was able to reach someone who promised to check in on the woman at the motel.

The 2-1-1 system, Wethered said, makes such emergency assistance available through an easy- to-memorize telephone number.

"Whether it's an emergency call or not, the great utility of a 211 service is linking people with any type of community service," said Wethered. "People don't know the services that are out there to help them. We help people know what is available."

United Way officials are hopeful that the state will take over the cost of running the 211 system as a result of the pilot and that it will be expanded to cover the entire state and improved with telecommunications technology unavailable to the four nonprofits.

$4.6 million price tag

It would cost the state about $4.6 million to run an independent 211 center, according to Martina A. Martin, senior vice president of the United Way of Central Maryland. The pilot is costing the nonprofits less because they are using existing staff and telephone banks, she said.


Constellation Energy, parent company of BGE, recently agreed to fund a large chunk of the pilot.

Said Martin: "Not only does the system help residents cut through the confusion, it also provides a barometer of needs."